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EU pledges $1b for Lebanon, urges curbs against illegal migration

BEIRUT — EU chief Ursula von der Leyen recently announced $1 billion in aid to Lebanon to help tackle illegal migration, as rights groups warned against forced returns to Syria.

The European Union has already agreed deals with Egypt, Tunisia, Mauritania and others aimed at helping stem flows of irregular migrants.

"I can announce a financial package of $1 billion for Lebanon that would be available from this year until 2027," the European Commission chief said, adding that "we want to contribute to Lebanon's socio-economic stability".

She said the aid was designed to strengthen basic services such as education and health amid a severe economic crisis.

Europe will also support Lebanon's army, with the aid "mainly focused on providing equipment and training for border management".

The EU Commission's spokesman said in Brussels the aid will be disbursed "in grants", with 736 million euros earmarked to support Lebanon "in response to the Syrian crisis".

He said "264 million euros will be for bilateral cooperation", notably to support the security services, including with border management.

Von der Leyen said the EU was committed to maintaining "legal pathways open to Europe" and resettling refugees, but "at the same time, we count on your good cooperation to prevent illegal migration and combat migrant smuggling".

Lebanon's economy collapsed in late 2019, turning it into a launchpad for migrants, with Lebanese joining Syrians and Palestinian refugees making perilous Europe-bound voyages.

Lebanon says it currently hosts around two million people from neighbouring Syria — the world's highest number of refugees per capita — with almost 785,000 registered with the United Nations.

"We understand the challenges that Lebanon faces with hosting Syrian refugees and other displaced persons," said von der Leyen, adding the EU had supported Lebanon with 2.6 billion euros to host them.

The Syria war erupted in 2011 after the government repressed peaceful pro-democracy protests and has killed more than half-a-million people and displaced around half of the pre-war population.

Eight rights groups including Amnesty International and Human Rights Watch warned before von der Leyen's Beirut visit that Syria was not safe for returns.

EU assistance "geared to enabling or incentivising returns to Syria risks resulting in forced returns of refugees", a statement said.

EU aid bolstering Lebanese security agencies so they can curb migration to Europe "could result in Syrians resorting to even longer and more dangerous routes", they added.

Lebanon has also faced nearly seven months of border clashes between its powerful, Iran-backed Shiite movement Hizbollah and Israel that flared after the Hamas-Israel war began in October.


People smuggling 


Lebanon remains essentially leaderless, without a president and headed by a caretaker government with limited powers amid deadlock between entrenched political barons.

Von der Leyen was accompanied by Cyprus President Nikos Christodoulides.

Cyprus, the EU's easternmost member, is less than 200 kilometres from Lebanon and Syria, and wants to curb migrant boat departures from Lebanon towards its shores.

Nicosia says the Israel-Hamas war has weakened Beirut's efforts to monitor its territorial waters.

"I am very confident that this package announced today will enhance the capacity of Lebanese authority to handle various challenges including controlling land and maritime borders, ensuring the safety of its citizens, fight against people smuggling and continue their fight against terrorism," Christodoulides said.

Some Lebanese politicians have blamed Syrians for their country's worsening troubles, and pressure often mounts ahead of an annual conference on Syria in Brussels, with ministers meeting this year on May 27.

Lebanese Prime Minister Najib Mikati said: "We reiterate our request to the European Union... to help displaced people in their own countries to encourage them to return voluntarily and thus guarantee them a decent life in their country of origin.

"If we insist on this issue, it is to warn against Lebanon becoming a transit country from Syria to Europe, and the problems at the Cypriot border are just one example of what could happen if this issue is not radically resolved."

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